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LEADER OR BLUFFER? | How the President can send the Americans packing as early as April 15, 2017

Then Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin and US Ambassador Philip Goldberg shake hands after signing the EDCA. INTERAKSYON.COM FILE
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In the aftermath of the killing of Jennifer Laude by US Marine Joseph Pemberton in 2014, the late Senator Miriam Santiago and I co-authored a joint resolution seeking the abrogation of the Visiting Forces Agreement of 1999. This was the second joint resolution I had the privilege of co-sponsoring with her that urged the Executive to abrogate the VFA, the first time being in 2012, after the dumping of toxic waste off Subic by a ship contracted by the US Navy.

Both resolutions had little chance of affecting the course of events.  The Aquino administration was hell bent not only on maintaining the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) but on concluding the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) with the United States, which would, in effect, allow Washington to create military bases within nominally Philippine bases.  Senator Santiago was, as usual, ignored by a stubborn president who was totally convinced he was right, while I was branded by Malacanang as “more opposition than the opposition.”  The signing of EDCA during President Obama’s visit to Manila in 2014 was one of the events that eventually led to my breaking with the administration coalition and resigning from Congress in 2015.

In her final weeks, Miriam must have been comforted by the thought that at last we now had a president who, unlike Aquino, was talking tough to the Americans.  As for myself, though I have been deeply opposed to President Duterte’s policy of extra-judicial murder of drug users, I initially found myself excited that a break with the country’s long subordination to the United States could be at hand.  There were various reasons adduced for the president’s threatening a rupture with Washington, ranging from his being piqued at the US’s criticism of his war on drugs to his simply following through on long-held anti-American attitudes traceable to his being influenced by the leftist anti-imperialism of his student days.  Whatever the reasons, many like myself were hopeful that in Mr. Duterte, the Philippines might finally have found the instrument for our national liberation.

Initial enthusiasm, however, has given way to skepticism even as the President has taken every opportunity to bash the Americans. The pattern is disconcerting: Duterte threatens, his subordinates say he did not mean what he said, or he exaggerated, or he simply had a bad day.  In any event, there is no follow-through, no activation of the procedures required to get the Americans to start packing.

If the President is serious about asking the US to leave, he can easily do it. Article IX, titled “Duration and Termination,” of the Visiting Forces Agreement reads:

This agreement shall enter into force on the date on which the parties have notified each other in writing through the diplomatic channel that they have completed their constitutional requirements for entry into force. This agreement shall remain in force until the expiration of 180 days from the date on which either party gives the other party notice in writing that it desires to terminate the agreement.

Since VFA is an executive agreement, Duterte does not need Congress’ approval for his action.  If the president wants the United States out of the Philippines by, say, April 15, 2017, he can simply give written notice to Washington by October 15.

As for the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, the Supreme Court in its decision on the constitutionality of EDCA on January 12 of this year stated:

The admission and presence of US military and civilian personnel in Philippine territory are already allowed under the VFA, the treaty supposedly being implemented by EDCA. What EDCA has effectively done, in fact, is merely provide the mechanism to identify the locations in which US personnel may perform allowed activities pursuant to the VFA. As the implementing agreement, it regulates and limits the presence of US personnel in the country.

The Court’s words are crystal clear: since it is merely an implementing mechanism of the VFA, EDCA loses its character as a legal agreement once the VFA is terminated.  With VFA terminated on April 15, 2017, EDCA will be null and void on that date.

It is time the President proves to the nation and the world that he is really serious about asking the Americans to leave.  The action required is simple; it is a notice from the Department of Foreign Affairs that does not even need his signature.  Not following through will not only translate to a loss of his credibility among his constituents.  It would lead to his being dismissed as a bluffer, a “tin pot” ruler, by Washington, which can easily adjust to living with his curses and his tantrums.

Of course, Washington may retaliate. The Central Intelligence Agency may even try to oust him, like it did Mossadegh in Iran and Arbenz in Guatemala.  But risking such an eventuality is the mark of a genuine nationalist leader.  Do you have the guts to do that, Mr. President?  Or is this just a bluff, a big fraud you are perpetrating on the Filipino people?

*Walden Bello made the only resignation on principle in the history of Congress when he broke with the Aquino administration and stepped down from the House of Representatives after serving for six years.  He is presently a senior research fellow at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at Kyoto University and professor of sociology at the State University of New York at Binghamton.